‘It’s hard,’ Utah’s Lt. Gov.-elect says of post-COVID-19 effects

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Lt. Gov.-elect Deidre Henderson spent much of Election Day in an emergency room, in agonizing pain from what turned out to be a spinal cord leak that may be related to a bout earlier this year with COVID-19 that’s already left her with lingering respiratory issues.

Henderson, currently still a Republican state senator from Spanish Fork, said she’s sharing her story in interviews and social media posts as a reminder to Utahns they need to take precautions to protect themselves and others against the deadly coronavirus, including wearing masks even during family gatherings.

“We’ve got to have people be responsible for others,” she said, adding that making the sacrifice “is a virtue. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing and it’s a sign of a compassionate and caring society. And I truly believe the people of Utah are good, caring, compassionate people. We’ve seen it over and over and over.”

What Henderson said she doesn’t understand is why some Utahns continue to push back, especially against wearing masks despite Gov. Gary Herbert’s recent statewide mandate to counter record growth in the number of cases.

The economy “would be better off if people weren’t so hesitant and fighting against wearing a mask. Even when it wasn’t a mandate, when it was a ‘pretty please,’ they were fighting against it. It beats me. I still haven’t figured out why some people think that asking them to protect other people is a violation of their constitutional right,” she said.

Also of concern to Henderson is the outbreak’s impact on hospitals, something she said she’s seen firsthand. Officials have warned of not only a looming shortage of bed space for the sickest patients, but also of the personnel needed to care for them.

“The strain is real. The fatigue is real. I saw that and felt that,” she said, making a point in a recent Facebook post to thank all hospital workers, including “Maria who cleaned my hospital room every day last week. Each time she finished she told me that she was praying for me to get better and thanked me for letting her clean my room.”

Her experience since testing positive for the virus in August has “been a rough road. It’s been kind of unbelievable,” Henderson said. Her doctors have speculated the back problems that started with a herniated disc in October may be the latest consequence of contracting COVID-19.

“It’s hard to say,” Henderson said. “There’s no proof of any direct correlation. All I can say is when I had COVID, my body mounted a pretty significant inflammatory response to the virus, which, you know, caused all sorts of problems.”

Now, after three back surgeries, she said the worst is behind her and she’s focused first on recovering and then dealing with breathing issues that sometimes require supplementary oxygen. Working throughout her ordeal, Henderson said she’ll be ready to hit the ground running when she’s sworn in at the start of the year.

Although her autoimmune arthritis flared up shortly after she contracted the virus, possibly as a result of not being able to take her immunosuppressant medication while being treated, the back problems were new to Henderson.

The neck pain, headaches and vomiting that sent her to the hospital on Election Day Nov. 3 were a sign that a previous epidural steroid treatment and disc surgery hadn’t worked on the herniated disc that sent pain shooting down her left leg.

But it would take two more surgeries to fix what turned out to be a spinal fluid leak from the initial epidural treatment.

On election night, Henderson still managed to arrive in Fairview, the home of Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, in time to celebrate their victory. She gave a speech that evening and did interviews the following day with Cox, Utah’s current lieutenant governor, until the pain became too much mid-afternoon.

By the weekend after the election, Henderson was undergoing her second back surgery, which failed to stop the leakage that she described as “horrific.” A subsequent surgery that removed bone to find the leak and fused her spine kept her in the hospital for a week.

Since then, she’s tweeted her gratitude for everything from a pair of socks that say, “2020 Sucks”; to her husband, a physical therapist, showing her how to use a walker; to her children decorating the family home for Christmas and readying Thanksgiving dinner.

“It’s hard. I’m not going to lie. It’s hard and there have been days when I have been really frustrated,” Henderson said, adding, “what I think is the biggest takeaway for me and the biggest concern with COVID in general is it is indiscriminate. You don’t know how it will affect someone — and who it will affect.”